I'm a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
Learning Guitar on Your Own
For some players, learning to play guitar by themselves is really the only way to go. Guitar lessons have their place, and there is no substitute for an experienced teacher or mentor who is committed to helping you reach your goals. But there are also some good reasons to skip the lessons and forge your own path.
From a practical perspective, teaching yourself guitar may be the only option. Guitar lessons cost money. If you’ve just scrounged your pennies together in order to afford a decent starter guitar, you may not be eager to throw down another twenty bucks a week or more. Compound this with the fact that most guitar instructors have their own methods and will teach you at their pace, not yours. This makes sense from their standpoint, but it could get a little frustrating and expensive from your point of view.
You may have trouble finding a guitar teacher who is on the same wavelength you are on. In other posts, I’ve recounted my first experiences with a guitar instructor back when I first started playing. The guy did not seem to care one whit about what kind of music I was into or what my goals were as a new musician. He was going to teach me songs he wanted me to learn, not help me explore music that inspired me. Or perhaps he just thought a kid wearing an Ozzy Osbourne t-shirt would also be into Lionel Richie.
The day I took my last lesson from that guy I remember him saying it was too bad I had decided to quit guitar. I wasn’t quitting guitar, far from it. I had simply decided to find my own way and leave this instructor in my wake.
My path was crooked, and my mistakes were many, but looking back I’ve come up with a few decent suggestions for new guitar players. This post contains my best advice for musicians who want to go it alone, without an instructor and teach themselves to play guitar.
There are many different ways to learn about the guitar. Here are 5 steps for learning to play guitar by yourself.
1. Learn to Tune by Ear
The first thing you should learn as a new guitarist is how to tune the thing. Obviously it makes no sense to spend hours practicing on a guitar that doesn’t sound right! But keeping your guitar in tune has additional benefits, especially for new players.
The open strings of a guitar tuned to standard concert pitch, starting with the 6th (fattest) string, are the notes E-A-D-G-B-E. I suggest getting an inexpensive digital tuner and learning how to use it. It will show you how to get those strings perfectly in tune, and you’ll know your guitar is at pitch every time you practice.
But you should really learn to tune by ear. Using the digital tuner (or a piano, pitch pipe, tuning fork or whatever else you have) you can tune your low-E string to concert pitch. Then, using the low-E, which you now know is in tune, you begin to tune the rest of your guitar.
This is easier than it sounds. I will explain below, but I've also created a separate article on how to tune your guitar by ear that goes into the process more thoroughly.
Each open guitar string is the exact same note as the 5th fret note of the string before it. Therefore, the open 5th string (A) is the same note as the 5th fret on the 6th string (also A). If it is not, adjust the tuning key for the 5th string until the open string note sounds the same as the 5th fret note on the 6th string.
You will repeat this with every string until your entire guitar is in tune. The only exception to this rule is the 2nd string (B), which you will tune to the 4th fret of the 3rd string (B again).
Learning to tune your guitar this way helps you tremendously when it comes to getting an ear for music. Personally, I also think my guitar sounds better when I tune it by ear.
Making sure your guitar is always in tune has one more benefit, and it comes in the form of one of the great epiphanies I ever had as a young guitar player: As long as your guitar is in tune, you can theoretically play anything you hear another guitar player play.
In other words, all of the guitar gods throughout music history played an instrument essentially like the one you own. It’s not like they have some kind of advantage, aside from their talent and experience. The same notes and chords they play are available on your guitar, and while it may take a lot of hard work on your part, you can play them too if you want to.
To quote Alec Baldwin's character in the movie The Edge: What one man can do another can do. He was only trying to kill a Grizzly Bear with a stick, which may seem easier than copping Eddie Van Halen. Paraphrasing and putting this in terms that work for us: What one guitar player can do another can do. Really, the deciding factor is how hard you want to work at it.
2. Begin to Build Your Chord Vocabulary
Realistically, it will be a while until you are ready to attempt Van Halen’s Eruption. For now, you need to get some basics under your belt. When it comes to guitar, there sure are a lot of basics. But you’re going to want to concentrate on the basics that will get you playing as quickly as possible.
We’re not looking for shortcuts here. Your road as a guitar player will be a long one no matter what, and you can spend a lifetime playing and practicing and never truly master the instrument. However, I think one of the things that most frustrates new guitarists is the attention to detail instructors sometimes spend when teaching the basics.
I recall starting off learning three notes on the E string. Important for sure, but as a new guitarist you want to play. So that’s what we’re trying to do here: Get you playing as soon as possible.
I advise investing in a basic beginner’s guitar manual if one didn’t come with your starter guitar. If you can’t or don’t want to do this, you can certainly find all the information you need out there on the internet.
There are several goals here: First, you want to learn the correct way to hold the guitar and the pick, and the correct way to strum. Bad form is a habit that is hard to break, so you want to start off right.
Secondly, you are going to build up a vocabulary of basic chords. This should include mastering open-form A, C, D, E, F, and G Major chords, as well as open-form minors such as Am, Em, Dm and even some easy 7th chords. You should learn to play “power chords” (which actually aren’t chords at all) as well as the most commonly used movable barre shapes such as A, Am, E, and Em.
Mentally, you can learn all of these chords in a week if you work at it. Physically, it will take a long time to get good at them. Your fingers will not be used to contorting in such positions and you are going to have to be patient until your muscles catch up to your brain.
You can sit staring blankly at a wall and strumming each of these chords for hours every week if you want to. I wouldn’t. There is a much more fun way to work on your chords and improve your playing.
3. Practice Chords by Playing Songs You Love
Chances are you didn’t decide to be a guitar player so you can learn chord names by rote and spend endless hours working on rudimentary strumming drills. You want to play music!
Some young players get the idea that you have to first master basic chords and scales before you can move on to playing songs you know by bands you love. Not so. Of course, if you are into classical music, progressive metal or jazz that may be true, but you might be surprised to know that much of the rock and country music you hear is based around very simple chord progressions.
By learning some of these songs and playing them you are working on your chords in the context of real music. Most transcribed songs also have a list of the chords you’ll need to know at the beginning, complete with diagrams of how to play them. This is a great way to learn new chords and expand your knowledge.
Once again I emphasize: This will not be easy. You will stumble and bumble and possibly curse a lot. Learning guitar is hard work, no matter how you do it. But at least you will get a little inspiration from learning songs you like instead of taking lessons for months just to learn to play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star on one string.
It’s important to realize there is a fine line between challenging yourself with music that is slightly above your ability and frustrating yourself with music you have no logical reason to expect yourself to be able to play just yet. This line is different for each new guitarist. Some may work on basic chords for years and be happy enough with that. Others may dive neck-deep into some fairly difficult music and thrive on the challenge it provides. Point is, go at your own pace, and don’t ever feel like you need to take on more of a challenge than you are ready for.
If you need a starting point, there are some excellent easy songbooks out there for beginners. These will provide enough of a challenge while helping you to play real music you will enjoy.
The Guitar Tab White Pages series has long been among my favorite collections of music. There are many different versions covering every genre and style. There's even an Easy Guitar version available that's perfect for newbie guitarists.
4. Practice the Chromatic Exercise Every Day
While you can start playing real songs on guitar relatively quickly, getting deeper into the instrument takes even more work. You are eventually going to want to be able to play solos and possibly even learn how to improvise. That’s a little ways off for a beginner, but there is no reason you can’t begin to lay down the foundation.
This means working on your fretting and picking-hand dexterity. I’ve found the best way to do this is to learn scales and practice them daily. However, you may not be up for that just yet, and that’s okay. Another much simpler method is the daily practice of a drill called the Chromatic Exercise.
It’s actually very easy:
- Play an open sixth string note, followed by the first fret of the sixth string with your first (pointer) finger.
- Then play the second fret on the same string with your second finger.
- Then the third with your third (ring) finger.
- Finally, you play the fourth fret on the sixth string with your fourth (pinky) finger.
Incidentally, this movement up the neck of one fret a time (or half-step) is called the Chromatic Scale, which is where this exercise gets its name.
When you are done with the sixth string, move to the fifth string and do the same. When you are done with the fifth, then move to the fourth, then the third, then the second, and finally the first string.
Then, play the notes again on the first string, but in reverse order: the fourth fret to the open string. Then go back to the second string, back to third and all the way back to the sixth string where you started, playing the notes in reverse each time. When you’ve completed the cycle you will have played each note on the first through fourth frets on each string and back again.
The idea here is to work on your fretting hand dexterity, but you’ll also want to employ good picking technique. When you get good at the most basic version of this exercise you can move it around the fingerboard and practice it at different frets. You can also vary your fingering to make it more challenging, and you can change up your picking pattern.
You can even do this while you are watching TV with your guitar unplugged. The more time you can spend with it the better. Before long, those single-note passages you avoid when learning a new song won’t seem so scary, and you will have the skill to pull them off.
This is not a substitute for learning scales. At some point down the road, you are going to want to dive into music theory at least a little bit, if nothing else so you can understand how scales work and how chords are built. For now, you are a beginner, and this exercise can go a long way toward loosening up your fretting hand and improving your technique.
This is also an excellent warm-up exercise. Believe it or not, injuries can and do happen when guitar players do not warm up properly.
5. Develop a Strong Work Ethic for Guitar
You know, I used to try to teach my friends how to play guitar when they’d ask. However, I soon learned a few important things, not only about learning guitar but about people.
A lot of people have the idea that to learn something requires a teacher, and it is up to that teacher to make sure they learn. They think they can show up, do only what is required, not touch the instrument between lessons, and somehow get good at guitar.
Just as a teacher requires homework in school, you have to do your homework when you are learning the guitar. In fact, learning guitar is about 90% homework, and if you don’t have the ambition and drive to spend time practicing and playing you aren’t going to get very far.
Whether you choose to take lessons or teach yourself to play guitar, you have to put in the time beyond the instructional material. The more you play the better. It is true that there are ways to regiment your practice sessions to make the best use of your time, but there is no substitute for hours spent with the instrument.
Consider two new guitar players who start out on the exact same day with the exact same learning method. Fast-forward to one year later, and the first guitar player has spent a thousand hours playing guitar during that year, while the second has only spent a hundred hours with the instrument. It isn’t hard to guess which player will be more advanced after only one year of playing. So, which guitar player would you rather be?
Needless to say, my days as a guitar instructor didn’t last long. I had a lot of trouble seeing how someone could say they want to get good at something and then not have the initiative to put in the time. For a long while now, when someone asks me to teach them to play I simply give them the same advice I'm giving you in this article.
Your success on the guitar, or anything in life, is directly related to the effort you give. Is it true that some people are more gifted than others when it comes to music? Of course, but don’t go around thinking you can't learn guitar because you weren’t born with the right musical aptitude. That's nonsense. Some people may be more gifted, and you can't control that. What you can do is control how hard you work, and promise yourself that nobody will ever outwork you.
Work hard. Play a lot. You will get good.
Your Path to Guitar Success
If you want to ignore everything I said in this article and sign up with a guitar teacher instead there is sure nothing wrong with that. Some people may prefer an instructor, and some guitar teachers are excellent.
Not every instructor is like the guy I had as a kid. Some are very in-tune with the needs of their students and tailor their lessons accordingly. If you are lucky enough to line up a guitar teacher who totally understands you and is able to get you going on the right path there are few better ways to learn guitar.
But if you can’t find a good teacher, or if you don’t have the coin, or if you have given up on lessons for any other reason, try my method.
- Learn to tune your guitar by ear.
- Start to build a vocabulary of basic chords.
- Practice chords by playing songs you like.
- Work on the Chromatic Exercise daily.
- Play, play, play!
You will soon move beyond the stages where this information is helpful to you, and then it will be time to learn a little about music theory, scales, modes, and all that good stuff. At that time you may want to revisit the idea of hiring a guitar teacher. For now, this ought to get you off to a good start.
Good luck! If you work hard you can make your guitar dream come true!
Joshua on May 04, 2020:
Great advice in this article! I tended to over rely on my chromatic guitar tuner for way too long - once I was able to tune my guitar by ear it was really a game changer with my ability to play. Not to say there's no need for a tuner - it definitely helps to properly "dial in" the notes and straightens up the music. However tuning by ear was an invaluable skill.
Thanks for the article!
Michael James (author) on April 30, 2020:
@Olajire: It sounds like you have only been playing for a little over a month. You really have to be patient and give it time. There is a lot that goes into how a chord sounds beside putting your fingers in the right spots. Hard strength, strumming technique, dexterity in switching between chords, etc . . . all of this takes time to master. I suggest you take it slow, and make sure you are fretting the chords correctly and with good technique. Find one video that teaches how to strum with a pick and stick to it.
Just keep at it. As I said in the article, it isn't going to be easy, but you can do it. Good luck!
Olajire on April 28, 2020:
Thank you for your advice.
I started learning to play the guitar in March but it hasn't been easy. I can play very few chords but each time I play it doesn't seem to sound right even though my guitar is tuned. I have tried watching videos on how to strum but there are so many videos I don't know which to stick to.
Please what do you think about this?
Michael James (author) on January 02, 2020:
Hi Ralph - No, you do not need to plug your electric guitar into an amp to tune it. As long as you can hear the notes you can tune by ear. You can also tune quietly using a chromatic tuner.
Ralph on January 01, 2020:
I own a Les Paul Gibson, is tuning an electric guitar the same as your video shows? Do you have to have it plug in the amp to tune it properly?
Angela McMullen on November 18, 2019:
I have a 1964 D-18 I love it. Never loses tune and so easy to chord. It has a very deep rich sound...it’s awesome sounding.
Michael James (author) on June 25, 2019:
@Hani - You can certainly start learning the basics without a pick. Some acoustic guitar players never use a pick, and some switch between flatpicking and fingerstyle. If you are playing acoustic it would be smart to do a little research on the correct hand positioning and techniques for playing fingerstyle. If you are playing an electric, you can simply do the best you can until you are able to get a pick.
The important this is to start playing and learning. When I was a first learning guitar and I inevitably lost all of my picks I would use a quarter until I was able to get new picks. Not the best choice, but you make do with what you have!
Hani on June 24, 2019:
As a beginner, are guitar pickets necessary? My sister gave me her guitar, and I didn't get a guitar pick with it. My leg is in a cast so I can't really get to the store easily. I thought I'd start learning to play the guitar to pass the time, but I don't want to start the wrong way. Is it alright to play without one? Is it a beginner necessity? Once my cast is off, I'll buy one for sure though.
Michael James (author) on March 14, 2019:
Thanks Eric! Obviously there is bit more to it, but that's the bottom line.
Eric on March 13, 2019:
Your advice on learning the guitar is the best advice there is. Play, Play, play...then play some more
Michael James (author) on March 06, 2019:
Hi Lynn - There are pros and cons to both used and new guitars for beginners. Buying a new guitar means you get a warranty and likely better resale value if you decide the instrument is not for you.
On the other hand, for the same price you can get a better guitar all-around if you can buy used. The problem is most new guitarists don't know what to look for or how to judge a used instrument, so I usually recommend going new.
But, if you have a friend who can help you evaluate a used guitar and make a smart choice, you may wish to go the used route.
Lynn on March 05, 2019:
Hi, for a beginner to buy a guitar - what would you recommend? Buy a new one? Used? Appreciate your thoughts. Thank you
Michael James (author) on March 01, 2019:
@Gatorman - I'm glad you find this article helpful and I wish you the best of luck. The biggest and most important tip I can suggest is to never give up. Just keep trying, even when (and especially when) it seems like you're just spinning your wheels.
As for getting intimidated by more experienced guitar players, that just goes with the territory. No matter how long you play, there is always someone better than you. These are people you can learn from. Ask them questions if you can. If not, just watch what they do. It may be confusing at first, but the pieces will come together.
One of the downsides to teaching yourself guitar is finding those ways to challenge yourself. Don't shy away when you encounter them. They are what makes you better.
Gatorman, Utah on February 28, 2019:
Guitar Gopher....I had walked away from learning guitar with instructor years back, but I had been playing and learning on my own...the sound is there but at times it sucks....we set up practice time with experience players sometimes its above what I know.....so I shy away slowly until I'm outside the building....trying to think what that was all about....but now I've come upon your set of learning the 5 steps to learning guitar...I'll start all over to give a try one more time on your suggestion about playing guitar....thank you for your counseling and giving guidance....you made a great recommendation, thanks for the opinions.
Michael James (author) on February 10, 2019:
@Sam - I think it is unlikely that you, or anyone, is too dumb to learn guitar. It does sound like you have some issues with self confidence, though. Sometimes small victories help to build our confidence so we can take on larger and larger tasks.
Guitar instruction manuals are often set up in a very linear way, which means you usually have to get through a lot of boring stuff before you can enjoy playing guitar. Some people learn well with that kind of method, where others (like me, and I'm guessing you) struggle.
That's one of the reasons the steps in this article are set up in the way they are. I want people to start playing as soon as possible, so they are motivated to stick with the guitar take on harder and harder concepts.
So, give it a try. Learn to tune the guitar, learn some chords, and start playing songs. Take it easy, don't be too hard on yourself, and you'll get there.
Sam Chapman on February 09, 2019:
I never played guitar in my life.I'm 66 now and retired so I went down to a pawn shop and bought a Fender Strat because they look cool.I tried to practice on it but the more I tried the harder it got.I've always had trouble learning stuff and this is no exception.Maybe I'm too dumb to learn how to play. Could that be the case?
Ibanez418 on December 05, 2018:
Just what I was looking for.
Michael James (author) on June 29, 2018:
Thanks, Les! Glad you found this helpful. Good luck getting back to guitar. I think the biggest "secret" is just to keep on playing and never give up.
Les Trow on June 27, 2018:
Just the kind of thing I'm interested in.
I started to try learning a few years back. I've not done much recently but this might re-inspire me to continue.
Thanks for that.
Michael James (author) on February 20, 2018:
@Amykins42 - Thanks for the kind words. A good teacher is very important - if you can find the right one. Glad you love the Yamaha. They are some of my favorite beginners-level acoustics. Good luck and keep on practicing!
Amykins42 on February 19, 2018:
Sound like I found a great teacher, after my first lesson he sent me home to practice 3 chords...the beginning of a song I like :)
Love your article, now I have some things to work on on top of that... tuning is a bit flat so far lol and my chromatic scales are slow... first week is fun.
Oh and thanks for the begginer guitar articles too I went with the Yamaha fgx800c and I'm so happy I did ❤
Michael James (author) on October 05, 2015:
Thanks Stella! I sometimes wish I had found a good teacher from the beginning, but I suppose we all must travel our own path. I agree the number-one thing is to put in the time and work hard.
stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on September 29, 2015:
This was a great article for the beginning student. Even though I have taught for years, I agree you can teach yourself the guitar. I taught myself before I ever went to get a teaching certificate. I think people have to put the effort into the guitar to get the desired results. Nice, Stella